It’s important to get the right force for the job
The best way to prevent large scale communal violence is prompt, impartial and resolute action on the ground, using force to restrain, contain and deter violent protagonists. Local and state reserve police are ideally suited for this role, provided they are trained, tasked and equipped for the role. Unfortunately, it is these forces that form the weakest link. They are poorly trained, poorly-paid, ill-equipped and worst of all, handicapped by wanton interference by politicians at all levels of their hierarchy. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that if the police forces can be strengthened and allowed to discharge their duties impartially, the need for new legal instruments to specifically tackle communal violence becomes less salient.
Given the reality of the state of the police, it is routine for paramilitary and army units to be handed the responsibility of securing areas threatened by communal violence. In addition to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which has historically been responsible for internal security, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) was carved out of CRPF in 1991, specifically to handle communal violence. In addition to being quick on the scene, the RAF is specially equipped for its intended purpose.
In the most recent outbreak of violence in Vadodara, state and central politicians — for their own reasons — were determined to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. That’s great news. This resolve resulted in CRPF, RAF and even the Border Security Force troops being pressed into service. In all likelihood, this will result in bringing the Vadodara episode to a considerably less bloody end. Especially because, and this is important, the Indian Army was called upon to conduct ‘flag marches’ — where armed soldiers patrol troubled zones in a show of force intended to deter mobs. It is highly unusually for shots to be actually fired. But flag marches usually succeed spectacularly.
Six army columns, comprising of a few hundred soldiers, have been called out to help civil authorities in Vadodara. Four of them, largely from the air defence brigade have been tasked with conducting flag marches. While their introduction will help bring the communal riots to a quick end, the use of the army for yet more domestic duties is a cause for concern. In addition to the immediate opportunity cost — weakening of air defence strength by three columns in a state bordering a nuclear Pakistan — Indian leaders and public opinion has routinely ignored the dangers of putting a fighting force in domestic conflicts in civilian environments. That they are effective is beside the point. Such deployment softens soldiers. Worse, using them time and again allows diminishing returns to kick in. Flag marches work when they are used sparingly. It will be an unfortunate day for India when a local gangster decides to lob a Molotov cocktail at an army jeep. The army has long been sucked into domestic counter-insurgency duties. It should not be allowed to be sucked into communal violence.
This is not an argument against the army’s flag marches in Vadodara. Rather, this is an argument for Indian policymakers to strengthen units like the RAF so that they attain the same reputation and credibility as the army.